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Some of the most riveting, unforgettable, and profoundly affecting shorts out of SXSW were showcased during the music video competition.

When you think of exceptional short-form filmmaking, your mind may not immediately gravitate to the music video art form. But, given the immense importance of music to genre filmmaking and cinema in general, it’s not much of a surprise that these narrative representations of powerful music and lyricism would impress — combining striking visuals and sound to tell moving, thought-provoking, inspiring, and even terrifying stories.

In part three of our SXSW Short Film showcase (read part one, Best of the Fest, here, and read part two, Best Animated Shorts, here), we take a look at five of the most notable, arresting, and awe-inspiring shorts out of the festival’s music video competition.

1. Mac Miller – Colors and Shapes

It’s easy to dismiss out-of-hand the use of drugs as inherently bad. We’ve seen enough of the damaging, often deadly effects of drug addiction to warrant fear and concern when it comes to illicit substances.

Tragically, talented rapper and record producer Mac Miller became a victim of drug abuse, losing his life to an overdose at the tender age of 26. Yet, in his mesmerizing song Colors and Shapes, he explores another side of drug use — attempting to explain the intoxicating draw of these mind-altering substances as a means to enlightenment and mental expansion. Colors and Shapes is essentially a psychedelic journey through an LSD trip, detailing Mac’s otherworldly experiences while under the influence.

The song begins with a spoken word sample of psychologist and writer Timothy Leary, a famous advocate for the use of psychedelic drugs. It was originally released in 2014 as part of the mixtape Faces. At the time of its release, it wasn’t accompanied by a music video. But in 2021, Warner Records decided to release an official music video to coincide with the re-issuance of Faces, which was featured in the Music Videos Competition at SXSW 2023.

In the video, director Sam Mason pays tribute to Mac Miler with a surreal and stirring film commissioned by Miller’s family. It’s a deeply personal and stunningly animated film that follows Mac’s dog Ralphie as he embarks on a quest into unconsciousness. It exquisitely brings Mac’s powerful lyrics to life using realistic CG animation and ethereal visuals.

Mason explains:

“The track felt very visual to me, like it had its own world. This atmospheric nighttime place that was sometimes dangerous, sometimes comforting, then I saw a picture of Ralph and a story emerged…”

Mason asked Miller’s family to send him bits and pieces from his childhood to help craft the visual world of childhood wonder and the highs and lows of a gifted but sensitive artist. The result is a strikingly visual, fully immersive experience that masterfully gives life to Mac’s words and inner soul in a truly captivating way.

2. Pranav Bhasin, Rohini Maiti – Screaming on the Fly

“Everybody’s kind of broken all the time, shopping on the fly, screaming on the side.”

This powerful refrain serves as the basis for this audio-visual story about the ways in which we try to fill the void inside ourselves, quieting the screaming in our head with a compulsive indulgence in excess. Fueled by social media and the marketing machine, we convince ourselves there’s so much we need — and that “stuff” will help us feel whole and give our lives meaning.

This is a satire on buying more and feeling less,” says Mumbai-based filmmaker and composer Pranav Bhasin.

Backed by the infectious hook, sumptuous vocals from Rohini Maiti, and bop-inducing guitar and synth lines, Bhasin’s video perfectly captures the essence of the song as it illustrates the chaotic and frenetic pursuit of “more” while true satisfaction remains forever out of arm’s reach.

3. Pearl Derringer Featuring Margo Price – Little Baby

Little Baby is the debut single off of Pearl Derringer’s upcoming album The Fool, set to release this summer. The jaw-dropping video, directed by Kimberly Stuckwisch, was shot with a cast and crew of five over seven days. The project took about a year to complete with its extensive VFX. It’s both theatrical and sublimely simple, complementing rather than overpowering the meaningful lyrics.

Rich with arresting visuals and steeped in allegory, with references to Greek mythology, a faceless Pearl pays her toll to the boatman and journeys across the Rivers Styx through a world of the unseen. She’s willing to trade her very soul to become society’s ideal of the perfect woman. But what is left when she gives everything?

It’s a film that personifies the blurred line between reality and the manipulation of identity on social media.

The anonymous songwriter known as Pearl Derringer wrote the song as a way to grapple with issues of mental health and insecurities, which were exasperated by the rise of social media as a platform for hearing music and the disingenuous expectations put on artists as a result of social media’s enormous influence. The songwriter battles with social anxiety and the pressures of how art should be perceived.

The sumptuous short explores what happens when a person loses all sense of self and tries to become what the world wants them to be. It’s a potent work of art that forces us to question why so many of us feel the need to misrepresent ourselves and our lives on the internet. .

4. Amanda Sum – Different Than Before

In celebration of 2022’s Asian Heritage month, designed to bring awareness to Asian culture and heritage, Vancouver singer Amanda Sum released her new song and music video, Different Than Before. The song was created as a response to growing concern over anti-Asian sentiment and violence and a strong desire for systemic change.

While we’ve long been taught that the best way to deal with bullies is to ignore them and refuse to add fuel to their hateful fire. But Sum beautifully challenges that notion and instead urges us all to stand up and fight for what’s right, vocally and unabashedly. We’re at a boiling point where the persecuted and oppressed need vocal supporters who aren’t afraid to shout from the rooftops and express full-throated disapproval of racism, bigotry, and prejudice. It’s not enough to silently condemn.

The powerful short, directed by Mayumi Yoshida, begins at a Chinese restaurant where an Asian family is celebrating their daughter’s engagement and gleefully singing karaoke on the restaurant’s stage. Suddenly, a group of racist, white hecklers starts shouting at them and spewing hateful rhetoric.

When the daughter angrily gets up to confront them, the father urges her to sit down and ignore it. But when it’s his time to get up and sing, he journeys through a montage of flashbacks and fantasy sequences, during which he realizes what he cherishes most. Envisioning himself as an Elvis-esque pop star surrounded by adoring fans, he finally gets the courage to face those seeking to belittle, harm, and dehumanize those he loves.

In a moment of stand-up-and-cheer determination, he steps off the stage, shouts across the room to the hateful hecklers, and marches to the back of the restaurant to confront them face to face. And in this inspiring moment, he realizes he’s not just representing himself or his family; he’s representing an entire community. And they’re not taking it anymore.

Ending with an urgent call to Stop Asian Hate, this gorgeous video was nominated for Music Video of the Year at the 2023 Juno Awards and Best Music Video at SXSW 2023. It’s remarkable.

5. Kuba Kawalec – I Died

A pregnant, unwed girl (Natalia Lange) comes under the care of a group of nuns. After giving birth, her newborn is sold off to a mysterious clergyman. The girl attempts to suppress her pain and longing, but this makes her vulnerable to an unseen evil lurking within the convent.

Suzanna Plisz‘s exquisite horror-themed, dialogue-free narrative story is shot in mesmerizing black and white, bathed in a sumptuous gothic atmosphere. Both the song and video are gloriously hypnotic, melodious, eerie, and unsettling.

Plisz explains the method behind her beautiful madness:

“My approach to making this video was the same as if I was making a movie. And just like in movies, the actors here were key to bringing the characters to life. I cast professional actors with a strong natural aura so it could be felt from the screen.”

The casting is impeccable, and both Lange and the actor who plays the young boy born of demon spawn, Adam Sulek, are extraordinary.

Though it serves the song it accompanies flawlessly, this is a short film that stands as a stellar piece of art in its own right. If this were a feature film, I would watch the holy hell out of it.  

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